After cigarettes, alcoholic beverages may be subject to a warning label

8 minute read
15 December 2022

On Wednesday, Nov. 2, Senator Patrick Brazeau tabled Bill S-254, An Act to Amend the Food and Drugs Act (warning label on alcoholic beverages) in the Senate. There is an obvious parallel to tobacco regulations.

Bill S-254 proposes to require warning labels that describe a direct causal link between alcohol consumption and the development of fatal cancers on alcoholic beverages that contain 1.1 per cent alcohol per volume or more.  The labels would lay out what is considered a "standard drink," how many standard drinks are in each product and the number of standard drinks that should not be exceeded in order to avoid significant health risks.

Liquor labelling regimes in Canada and the United States

Bill S-254 represents a proposed major change to Canadian liquor labelling since no federal legislation currently requires any health warnings on alcoholic beverages, including the two primary statutes and their associated Regulations, the Safe Food for Canadians Act and the Food and Drugs Act.  Under Bill S-254, the proposed health warnings on alcoholic beverages would become a mandatory part of the labelling requirements that provide consumers with information on the ingredients and allergens, nutritional and caloric values, and prescribed standards of alcoholic beverages.

Despite the absence of federal legislation, Yukon and the Northwest Territories do require health warnings on alcohol sold within their boundaries. The Yukon Liquor Corporation affixes standard warning stickers, which state: "Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth effects." The Northwest Territories Liquor Commission affixes standard two-part warning stickers, which state: "1. Women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. 2. Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems." 

The health warning statement of the Northwest Territories Liquor Commission mirrors the mandatory health warning statement of the Alcoholic Beverage Labelling Act of the United States (27 CFR part 16).  The 1988 Act requires a health warning statement to appear on all containers of alcoholic beverages (wine, distilled spirits and malt beverages) manufactured, imported, or bottled for sale in the United States containing not less than 0.5% alcohol per volume, intended for human consumption and bottled on or after Nov. 18, 1989. 

The health warning statement is the following statement:

GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.

The health warning statement may appear on the front label, back label, or side label.

Health Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines

In August 2022, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) released an Update of Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines: Final Report for Public Consultations, which recommends that Canadians consume a maximum of two drinks per week to reduce their risk of negative health consequences.

Thanks to Health Canada funding, the CCSA followed two years of research, summarized the evidence drawn from more than 5,000 peer-reviewed studies, mathematical modelling, consultations and discussions. The CCSA aims to provide people in Canada with accurate and current information about the risks and harms associated with the use of alcohol. Regarding the link between alcohol consumption and cancer, the CCSA report says that available data shows that the use of alcohol causes nearly 7,000 cases of cancer deaths each year in Canada, with most cases being breast or colon cancer, followed by cancers of the rectum, mouth and throat, liver, esophagus and larynx.

According to the CCSA, alcohol in even small quantities can be harmful.  The CCSA recommends slashing Health Canada's low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines which recommend that men limit their alcohol consumption to no more than three drinks per day and 15 drinks per week, while women should limit their alcohol consumption with a maximum of two drinks per day and 10 drinks per week.

The CCSA held a six-week online public consultation on the new drinking guidelines and received over 1,000 submissions. The final report is expected to be released on Jan. 17, 2023.

Implications of Bill S-254

Second reading of Bill S-254 is in progress in the Senate.  The House of Commons will also review and study Bill S-254 before it can become law. It is unlikely that Bill C-254 will progress rapidly in Parliament as the House of Commons adjourns for winter on Friday, Dec. 16 and the Senate on Thursday, Dec. 22. If no objections or interventions are made to address Bill S-254, it will likely be passed in 2023. If this is the case, Bill S-254 will come into force in 2024 on the first anniversary of the date of the day on which it received royal assent. 

In addition to causing issues from a branding perspective, Bill S-254 is proposing to give wineries, beer manufacturers and distilleries only 12 months to make the necessary changes to their labels and to use up any existing stock of products or labels already printed to comply with legislative requirements.  Public consultations on the design, size and content of the alcohol label would need to be fast tracked to meet this ambitious deadline.

The proposed regulatory implementation deadline of Bill S-254 is unrealistic. It deviates from Health Canada's established practice respecting changes to food labels. Traditionally, food manufacturers are given a transitional period of three to five years before implementation.  

In 2017, the Yukon Liquor Corporation began affixing labels to alcoholic products sold in the territory that warned alcohol can cause breast and colon cancer, but the move was quickly halted after industry complaints. The labelling was meant to be part of an eight-month study to assess the effectiveness of warning labels.

Five years later, the federal government – under this Senate bill - may end up passing legislation to affix warning labels on alcoholic beverages as the expression of its future alcohol policy and prevention strategy while the effectiveness of health warning labels on alcoholic beverages in halting excessive alcohol consumption over time remains untested. 

Critics of the measures proposed here could correctly point out that health warnings on alcohol labels, implemented as stand-alone measures, will not succeed in raising awareness of general and specific risks associated with alcohol.  The provision of clear and accurate information along with education, health promotion campaigns, coordinated by the federal, provincial and territorial ministers of health, can have a positive impact on risk perception, readiness to reduce drinking, and actual behavioural changes. It may be noted as well by health professionals that the ideal point of intervention, to ensure responsible alcohol consumption across a lifetime, is in the public education system with the incorporation of mandatory nutrition courses into the curriculum to provide wide‐spread opportunity to optimize the future health and well‐being of Canadians.    

It will be interesting to witness how the debate on Bill S-254 unfolds as it is considered by both the Senate and the House of Commons.

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